Classic Chills: ‘The Black Cat’ – Universal’s Decadent Film
by Sam Gafford
Caution: contains spoilers.
There is little doubt that the first cinematic pairing of horror film giants Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Universal’s 1934 classic The Black Cat, is their best film. It is a movie that is horrific, suspenseful, intelligent and incredibly decadent. That this film was made at all is amazing and that it was able to include so many strange and disturbing elements makes it doubly so.
The Black Cat was a movie that simply could not fail. With so much going for it, Universal saw little but growing bank accounts and didn’t pay much attention to what was actually going to be put in the film. The director Edgar G. Ulmer had convinced Universal producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. that teaming the two Universal giants of Lugosi and Karloff in a movie based loosely on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story would be nothing short of a certain hit. Even during the Depression, a studio could not pass up a movie that promised to make them so much money. Laemmle, haunted by visions of box office bonanza, gave Ulmer practically free rein to do anything he wanted and so he did. The result was a movie that simply amazes the viewer by its decadence.
Even though Laemmle had given Ulmer carte blanche on the story content, he kept a firm reign on the director in other areas. Ulmer was given basically a third of what the studio had spent on either Dracula or Frankenstein and a hideously short shooting schedule of fifteen days. Still, Ulmer was a veteran of creating movies on small budgets and was smart enough to know the ways to craft a film that looks as if it cost many times the actual amounts. Ulmer began by creating a new story and discarding several scripts that Universal already had sitting on their shelves. Gone was all pretext of even pretending to adapt the Poe script as Ulmer felt that the Poe story simply could not be adapted to film (would that other, later filmmakers were so observant). Together with screenwriter Peter Ruric, Ulmer created an entirely new story. At its foundation, The Black Cat is a simple revenge flick. Lugosi (in a positive role for once) plays a man who has come back to avenge himself upon the man (Karloff) who had betrayed their army. It is what Ulmer and Ruric built upon this framework that makes the movie so unique and powerful. For Ulmer, it was a chance to bring a modern flavor to the heavily Gothic stable of Universal horror films.
In a 1970 interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Ulmer remembered working with novelist Gustav Meyrinck on the 1920 German production of The Golem. Meyrinck “was contemplating a play based on Doumond, which was a French fortress the Germans had shelled to pieces during World War I; there were some survivors who didn’t come out for years and the commander was a strange Euripedes figure who went crazy three years later, when he was brought back to Paris, because he had walked on that mountain of bones.” Based on that nightmare image, Ulmer had his setting and time period.
The movie opens with a newlywed couple (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) enjoying a train ride through the Hungarian countryside when they are joined by Dr. Vitas Verdegast (Lugosi). Together, they share a taxi as the couple is traveling in the same direction as he… past the imposing Castle Poelzig built on the bloody ruins of Fort Marmaros. Along the way, the taxi driver obligingly gives a detailed description of the horror of the battle which had occurred there before crashing the taxi and dying. The young wife, Joan, is also injured so there is little left to do but trek towards the imposing Castle and hopeful refuge. Up to this point, there is really little to distinguish the movie. Lugosi is strong in his portrayal of Verdegast returning home after years spent in a war camp and, particularly here, his accent is an addition to the character rather than a hindrance. But this has been little more than a typical “old dark house” plot until the bell rings at the front door of the castle.
As the camera moves inward, we are shown a decidedly un-Gothic interior, quite unlike what one would expect to see in a castle. The set is extremely Art Deco with strange angles and, even in black and white, you can detect the unusual shadings. Instead of large, gloomy rooms a la Son of Frankenstein, we see glass, chrome and steel. The camera moves to the bedroom of architect Hans Poelzig (Boris Karloff) as he rises, Nosferatu-like, in answer to the summons. This one scene sets the tone for the remainder of the movie as we see Poelzig’s cold stiffness and detachment to the world. They are all truly pawns to him. Poelzig is as removed from human emotions as his castle is removed from its true origins.
Immediately, Poelzig is attracted to the beautiful Joan who bears a striking resemblance to his dead wife. As the story progresses, it gets stranger and more bizarre. Poelzig’s dead wife, it is revealed, was married to Verdegast and believed that he had died during the battle of Marmaros. Alone, she married Poelzig and later died. Here’s where it gets strange. The child that had been born to Verdegast and his wife was raised by Poelzig after her death. Then, in a Woody Allen type twist, Poelzig marries her! Verdegast has come to Poelzig demanding to know the whereabouts of his wife and daughter, not knowing that his wife is now dead and his daughter is married to the man who betrayed Verdegast’s unit to the enemy. Confused yet?
Poelzig takes Verdegast deep into the bowels of the castle where he shows him the dead body of their wife, encased in a glass crypt, but lies to Verdegast by saying that his daughter is also dead. Verdegast, crushed, demands retribution but Poelzig states that it must wait until the “outsiders” are gone. But Poelzig has no intention of letting Joan go and forces Verdegast to play a game of chess for the lives of the young couple. Verdegast loses and Poelzig has Joan taken away and the husband locked up. By now, Verdegast is beginning to go mad and his loyal servant (who was pretending to be loyal to Poelzig) helps him turn the tables on Poelzig but not before Joan meets the daughter and informs her that her father is indeed alive and in the castle. Upon hearing that she knows the truth, Poelzig kills her and leaves her for Verdegast to find. Finally going insane, Verdegast captures Poelzig during a black mass and tries to free the newlyweds but the husband, thinking that Verdegast is attacking Joan, shoots him! Allowing them to go free, the wounded Verdegast strings Poelzig up to a Art Deco version of a cross and proceeds to skin his enemy alive. As the newlyweds escape, they turn back to see the castle explode from Verdegast igniting the stores of explosives that still rested under the castle from the original battle. So ends one of the strangest entries in Universal’s monster cycle.
But can one really call this a monster film? There are no ‘classic’ monsters here. The setting is decidedly modern and the themes far more adult and disturbing than anything Universal had attempted before. In this one movie, we have instances of lust, possession, incest, torture, satanism and hints of necrophilia. One wonders how this movie got beyond the production phase but it must be remembered that this film was created before the establishment of the Hayes Commission which was the first organization involved with rating and censoring films. Even so, Ulmer gets away with an amazing amount of taboo themes. When the film was screened for the Laemmles (Carl Junior and Senior) they were horrified but not in the way that Ulmer would have intended. They insisted on toning the movie down while, in addition, Lugosi was incensed that the ‘hero’ he thought he was playing was shown to also have lustful desires for the young Joan. Grudingly, Ulmer agreed to go back and edit some of the harshest scenes (including the skinning sequence) but the crafty director added a few more scenes including the one where Karloff takes Lugosi on a tour of his dungeon where he has several beautiful women encased in glass. The effect is stunning as it perfectly epitomizes Poelzig’s insanity and desire to possess these beauties for himself for all time. There is more than a hint of necrophelia in these shots but it was not picked up on before the film’s release.
The performances by both Karloff and Lugosi show each at the top of their form and rising to the challenge of their parts. Karloff is chilling as the epitome of evil, Poelzig, and radiates decadence from every pore. His every move is stiff and robotic, mirroring the architecture around him and his visual impact is second only to his first on-screen appearance as Frankenstein. Lugosi, always tending to chew the scenery, is extremely effective as the hapless and impotent Verdegast. He shows the characters descent into madness as the one thing which kept him alive through prison camp (finding his wife and daughter) slips away from him. Unable to cope with the reality of what had happened, he loses himself in insanity and becomes nearly as evil as Karloff. It was certainly unheard of that the hero of a movie would turn and skin his enemy alive. Rarely would these two actors have material of such depth to work with and all of their other pairings (excepting the unequalled Son of Frankenstein) would be compared to this.
The movie provided the box office hit that Ulmer had promised despite the strange and bizarre touches. Strangely though, Ulmer did not benefit greatly from the movie but instead nearly found himself out of a career altogether. During filming, Ulmer fell in love with a script girl named Shirley Castle Alexander who just happened to have been married to one of Carl Laemmle, Sr’s favorite nephews. Shirley ended up leaving her husband for Ulmer and the couple fled Hollywood (and Carl Sr’s wrath) for New York where Ulmer made a career out of producing more movies on almost non-existent budgets.
Today, The Black Cat stands as a testimony to what one man can create on a limited budget and through hints and suggestion. It is, by far, one of the most bizarre and effective movies in Universal’s canon and remains so today nearly 70 years after its first release.
Sam Gafford is a fiction author, and critic, with his works published in various anthologies, including the recent Black Wings of Cthulhu from Titan Press. He is considered to be one of the leading scholars of the work of William Hope Hodgson, a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, and a man whom Sam has devoted a blog to. You can read that blog HERE.